Global Investing

Strong dollar, weak oil and emerging markets growth

Many emerging economies have been banking on weaker currencies to revitalise economic growth.  Oil’s 25 percent fall in dollar terms this year should also help. The problem however is the dollar’s strength which is leading to a general tightening of monetary conditions worldwide, more so in countries where central banks are intervening to prevent their currencies from falling too much.

Michael Howell, managing director of the CrossBorder Capital consultancy estimates the negative effect of the stronger dollar on global liquidity (in simple terms, the amount of capital available for investment and spending) outweighs the positives from falling oil prices by a ratio of 10 to 1. Not only does it raise funding costs for non-U.S. banks and companies, it also usually forces other central banks to keep monetary policy tight, especially in countries with high inflation or external debt levels. Howell says:

If you get a strong dollar and intervention by EM cbanks what it means is monetary tightening…The big decision is: do they allow currencies to devalue or do they defend them? But when they use reserves to protect their currencies, there is an implicit policy tightening.

The tightening happens because central bank dollar sales tend to suck out supply of the local currency from markets, tightening liquidity.   That effectively drives up the cost of money, as banks and companies scramble for cash to meet their daily commitments.  Central banks can of course offset interventions via so-called sterilisations – for instance when they buy dollars to curb their currencies’ strength, they can issue bonds to suck up the excess cash from the market. To ease the tight money supply problem they can in theory print more cash to supply banks.  But while many emerging central banks did sterilise interventions in the post-crisis years when their currencies were appreciating, they are less likely to do so when they are trying to stem depreciation, says UBS strategist Manik Narain.  So what is happening is that (according to Narain):

Markets are forcing central banks into supporting growth or the currency. You absolutely have to sacrifice growth as we have seen in places like Turkey where liquidity has impacted the growth profile

Russia: There’s cheap and then there is “near-death” cheap

Russia’s equity market has always been cheap, argues USAA‘s Wasif Latif, but at present levels it is just too cheap to ignore. Russia’s economic decline, driven by not only falling oil prices, its main source of income, but also Western sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine has caused a major sell-off that Latif and other asset managers believe is an overshoot. This has brought Russia’s benchmark dollar-denominated RTS stock index to its lowest level since March and before that, a level not seen since Sept. 2009.

“We’re not looking for it to go way up, but looking for it to go up from its near-death cheap to its normal-cheap condition,” said Latif, head of global multi-assets at USAA Investments.

From a high in late June through Oct. 3, the RTS stock index is down over 23 percent. Its market cap is just over $418 billion while the price/earnings ratio is 6.45 with a dividend yield of 4.86 percent. 

Bleak investment outlook sours mood at Russia forum

By Alexander Winning

What are the chances that Western investors will rush back to Russia if a shaky ceasefire in Ukraine leads to a more lasting peace? Pretty slim, judging by a keynote speech at a recent Russia-focused investment conference in London.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told the conference organised by Sberbank CIB, the investment-banking arm of Russia’s top state-controlled lender, there was little prospect of significant Western investment in Russia over the next 5 years:

I would be surprised if much foreign direct investment flowed into Russia from Germany and other Western countries. But there will be more investment coming from China.

Sanctions bite Russia but some investors are fishing

By Andrew Winterbottom

Russian stocks are up today, for the fifth day in a row and at the highest level in two weeks. What’s going on? As we wrote  here earlier in the week, foreign investors have been fleeing this market.  However it could be that some of them are starting to put aside concerns about the potential for further sanctions on Moscow and are scouring Russia’s stock markets for contrarian buying opportunities.

Russian stocks, chronically undervalued, are trading now at a discount of more than 60 percent to broader emerging markets, and to China which by all accounts is the standout beneficiary of the Russian woes. Just how cheap Russian shares are can be gauged from the fact they trade at a discount event to turbulent Pakistan. Here is a link that compares Russian equity valuations with other emerging and developed markets:  http://link.reuters.com/guv77v

While tensions between Russia and the West look to be only increasing, the risks of investing in Russia at present are obvious. But with greater risk comes greater potential reward, says Jonathan Bell, head of emerging market equities at Nomura Asset Management:

Discovering Pyongyang’s view with a North Korean diplomat

Last week I went to a very unique session on North Korea which featured a rare appearance of a North Korean diplomat, at London-based policy institute Chatham House.

A wide range of topics — from North-South relations, human rights, a potential nuclear test to a new generation of young diplomats — were discussed, but  under the so-called Chatham House rules (meaning I cannot reveal who said what).

Participants discussed how Pyongyang’s relationship with South Korea and the United States has been deteriorating as both sides exchange some pretty acrid verbal attacks. For instance earlier this month North Korea’s official KCNA called  South Korean President Park Geun-hye a “political prostitute” while it described U.S. President Barack Obama as a “wicked black monkey”.  South Korean Ministry of Defence spokesman Kim Min-seok for his part, had retorted that North Korea wasn’t a real country and that it existed solely to prop up a single person.

Ukraine and the IMF: a sense of deja vu

The West has just agreed to stump up a load of cash for Ukraine but there is a distinct sense of deja vu around it all.

Let’s face it – Ukraine’s track record on how it manages ts economy and foreign affairs isn’t great. This is the third aid programme Kiev has signed with the International Monetary Fund in a decade and two of them have failed. The IMF has its fingers crossed that this one will not go the way of the past two. Reza Moghadam, the IMF’s top European official, tells Reuters in an interview:

They seem to be committed, they seem to own this reform programme and in that sense I am optimistic

Braving emerging stocks again

It’s a brave investor who will venture into emerging markets these days, let alone start a new fund. Data from Thomson Reuters company Lipper shows declining appetite for new emerging market funds – while almost 200 emerging debt and equity funds were launched in Europe back in 2011, the tally so far  this year is just 10.

But Shaw Wagener, a portfolio manager at U.S. investor American Funds has gone against the trend, launching an emerging growth and income fund earlier this month.

It’s a great time to launch a fund if you have a long-term focus in mind. Emerging markets trailed DM in terms of performance for a while, peaking at end of 2010 so we are 3-plus years into a down market and period of significant underperformance.

CORRECTED-Toothless or not, Western sanctions bite Russian bonds

(corrects last paragraph to show that Timchenko was Gunvor’s co-founder, not a former CEO)

Western sanctions against Russia lack bite, that’s the consensus. Yet the bonds of some Russian companies have taken a hit, especially the ones whose bosses have been targeted for visa- and asset freezes.

Take state-run Russian Raiways. Its chairman Vladimir Yakunin, a member of President Putin’s inner circle, was on the sanctions list. He said he was flattered to be targeted but investors in his company’s dollar bonds are likely to be less thrilled. Russian Railways’ 2022 bond is now the cheapest quasi-sovereign bond in the emerging markets universe relative to its sovereign, Barclays analysts point out. The bond trades now at a 158 bps premium to Russia’s 2022 issue while the one-year average premium has been 114 bps, Barclays note.

Who shivers if Russia cuts off the gas?

Markets are fretting about the prospect of western sanctions on Russia but Europeans will also suffer heavily from any retaliatory trade embargoes from Moscow which supplies roughly a third of the continent’s gas needs  – 130 billion cubic metres in 2012.

After all, memories are still fresh of winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas exports through Ukraine because of Kiev’s failure to pay bills on time.  ING Bank analysts have put together a table showing which countries could be hardest hit if the Kremlin indeed turns off the taps.

So while Hungary and Slovakia depend on Moscow for over a third of their energy,  Germany imported less than 10 percent of its needs  from Russia while Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom received none at all in 2012, ING’s graphic shows.  So while the main impetus for the sanctions comes from the G7 group of rich countries,  it is central and Eastern Europe who will be in the firing line.

No more “emerging markets” please

The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them.  An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.

Like this analyst, many reckon the day has come when fund managers, index providers and investors must stop and consider  if it makes sense to bucket wildly disparate countries together.  After all what does Venezuela, with its anti-market policies and 50 percent annual inflation, have in common with Chile, a free market economy with a high degree of transparency  and investor-friendliness?

Deutsche Bank analyst John-Paul Smith is one of many questioning current index-based investing models which he says essentially provide a free ride to the Russias and Venezuelas of this world, who may be undeserving of investor dollars.  Simply by virtue of inclusion in the emerging index, a country becomes a “default beneficiary” of passive investment flows — from funds that hug or track the benchmark — Smith says. In a note he calls for the abandonment of current index criteria such as market access, liquidity or per capita income in favour of a “substantive governance-based view of risk”
In other words: